William J. (Bill) Spitz is a natural storyteller. Ask him a question about business, and he can tell you about building one of the most successful pest management companies in the Southwest from next to nothing.
Ask him a question about marketing, and he’ll tell you about how he spearheaded the National Pest Management Association’s (NPMA) first public relations campaign. Ask him about training and he’ll tell you how he helped develop a series of pest management training books.
Ask him anything else and he’ll gladly share it with you, because that’s what he’s done his whole life: told the story of pest management.
It Starts with $400
In 1950, after serving as an aviation cadet in World War II and working at his father’s burlap manufacturing company in New York, Spitz set off on his own with $600 to his name. He settled in Houston because he had heard it was “the city of the future,” where he soon met the owner of All State Pest Control, Jack Shaff. Shaff was being sponsored by a lawyer in New York, but wanted out, so he offered Spitz the job.
“I said, ‘No way would I ever get into that business,’” Spitz says. “A week later I got a letter from this lawyer. He said, ‘I will give you power of attorney over the company. You can pay yourself $40 a week for 10 weeks. If you like what you see, we’ll talk. If you don’t, you can walk.’”
Spitz did like the business and bought it from the attorney for $10 a week for 40 weeks. The entire business consisted of an old beat up Jeep, a fog machine, a barrel of chlordane and DDT, and a couple of leaky sprayers.
Spitz soon changed the company’s name to Big State Pest Control (to reflect its Texas heritage) but the early years were still tough.
“That first year, I did $8,200 in revenue,” Spitz says. “I had this list of customers, including this greasy spoon restaurant. I walked in and the odor was so bad I gagged. I told the owner, ‘Mister, find yourself somebody else,’ and walked out.”
Spitz’s pest control career could have come to an early end, when another pest control owner offered to buy Big State for $600.
“I said, ‘For $600, you can have it,’” Spitz says. “He peeled out six $100 bills from his pocket, folded it back up and said, ‘No, I don’t think it’s worth it.’”
“I was so discouraged, but I struggled and struggled and eventually ended up with a significant business.”
Spitz built his company from those humble beginnings into one of the leading firms in Texas by focusing on high-end clients, such as food plants, hospitals and hotels.
“I went to the customers who were tough, the guys who were really demanding about the quality of service,” Spitz says. “They wanted perfection, and that’s what we strived for.”
Companies like Uncle Ben’s Rice and the American Can Co. bought into Spitz emphasis on professionalism, and stuck with him even when competing firms offered to do the jobs at a lower price.
“The idea was when you can’t take a chance on any pests, you go to Big State,” Spitz says. “That was the reputation we had, which made me very proud.”
When Big State merged with Waste Management in 1988, the company employed more than 100 people and had more than 100 vehicles.
Pep in His Step
Spitz lovingly blames his wife Joan for his focus on industry professionalism, both as a business owner and as president of the NPMA (then NPCA) in 1972.
“She took me to these nice parties, where I got tired of hearing, (in a high-pitched nasal voice) ‘You’re an exterminator? What’s a nice guy like you being an exterminator for?’” Spitz jokes. “The whole movement of professionalism, of building a reputation that we are performing a worthy service, was very important to me.”
Seeing how well a public relations campaign worked for his own business, he took the idea to the NPMA. A newly created Public Education Program, or PEP, was designed to help educate the public about the important work performed by pest management professionals (PMPs).
“I walked around the convention that year telling everyone to ‘Put a PEP in your step,’” Spitz says — and it did. The PEP program resulted in hours of free radio time and articles in magazines like Reader’s Digest, Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping, highlighting “how professional pest control operators protect the health and property of the public.”
This idea survives today through the NPMA’s Professional Pest Management Alliance.
Ask the Expert
Back in Houston, Spitz was becoming the “Dear Abbey of bugs,” hosting call-in radio shows and answering readers questions in the Houston Post.
He always retained his professional image in the community because, as Spitz says, “When people asked me about a pest problem, I never told them to call me. I said, ‘Call your favorite pest control operator.’ I’d have competitors tell me, ‘Bill, every time you’re on the radio, my phone rings off the hook.’”
At the same time he was president of the NPCA, he served as president of the Congregation Emanu El, one of the largest Jewish Reform congregations in the nation.
Spitz also developed a new method of treating for termites by drilling into building slabs, which was written up in Pest Control (1958) as well in several industry reference books. He also made national headlines and television appearances for his work with termite sniffing dogs and the time he used termite sprayers to paint the grass in the new Houston Astrodome green after it all died.
Yet despite these accomplishments, what Spitz may be the most proud of is what he has achieved in his “retirement years.” At 80 years old, Spitz is involved in an organization called the Silver Foxes, a group of retired business owners that serve as consultants and mentors to help new and established growing businesses.
“I am having the best time in my life,” Spitz says. “I have a client who just won the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award (Phil Morabito of Pierpont Communications.) When he got his award, he thanked me and said, ‘Connecting with Bill Spitz as my mentor was one of the best things I could have done in accelerating my business and my career.’
“To me, this was worth so much more than I money I could get for my services.”
Spitz secret as a mentor is simply experience. He’s seen it all and done it all. “When you don’t have much money, and you make a mistake, boy, it hurts — and you never forget those mistakes,” he says.
And to think, maybe Bill Spitz wouldn’t have all these lessons to share, had he made the biggest mistake of all and sold his pest management business for $600.